IT’S NEAR 6 pm, and diamond broker Dineshbhai Patel is closing his business for the day at the Shree Sardar Patel market in Varachha. Displaying five tiny, polished diamonds, he says, “Diamonds like these went for Rs 18,000 last year, this set is worth Rs 15,000 now. Sale picks up around this time (ahead of Christmas) but it is down now because everything needs a bill… First, demonetisation hit us hard, now GST. There is a slump in our business. We are all stuck in paperwork… we are not so literate, and all the paperwork will leave us with no profit.”
With 12 days to go for voting in the Gujarat Assembly elections, the big question that’s hanging over this diamond hub in Surat city is this: will the BJP be able to tide over the resentment triggered by the note ban and GST?
The answer is “yes” for many in a city that is known to be a BJP stronghold, with the party’s MLAs winning all the 12 Assembly seats from here last time. And “no”, for some like Dineshbhai, who says, “I will vote for the Congress. This time, we have to show them (the BJP).”
Varachha Road constituency is expected to see a close fight between BJP MLA Kumar Kanani and Congress candidate Dhiru Gajera, who was a BJP MLA twice from 1995. Gajera was the second choice for the Congress after it removed Praful Togadia, a local corporator and cousin of VHP leader Pravin Togadia, following pressure from the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) — of the around 2.03 lakh voters in Varachha, 1.74 lakh are Patidars.
Praful Togadia claims the Congress stands a strong chance in four seats. “Katargam, Varachha Road and Karanj will be impacted by (PAAS leader) Hardik Patel, and the fourth is Surat east… The Congress had never been able to organise a public meeting in Varachha before, we did it this time,” says Togadia, referring to leader Rahul Gandhi’s visit nearly three weeks ago.
Among Surat’s constituencies, Kamrej, Varachha and Katargam are dominated by Patidars and saw protests against the BJP during and after the PAAS agitation. And, the diamond traders in Varachha agree that it will be a challenge for the ruling party next month.
“Now, we earn 2 per cent, plus we have to pay tax, and those who get the rough diamonds sell it to us at a higher price,” says Dineshbhai, originally a farmer from Amreli who became a diamond broker here around 20 years ago.
Sureshbhai Patel, a diamond broker who hails from Bhavnagar, says GST has hit the smaller businessmen harder.
“Our earnings are down to Rs 10,000 a month. The big businessmen did not suffer much because they have everything on paper, and payment is all through ‘cash credit’ at the bank. Besides, their business is insured,” he says.
The Varachha market has about 80 diamond trading offices, employing around 1 lakh people of which about 75 per cent are Patels from Saurashtra, mainly Amreli and Bhavnagar. “We Kathiawadis (from Kathiawad, as Saurashtra is known) took all the risk and set up these businesses. Now, they want to snatch it and make us jobless,” says Dineshbhai.
Ghanshyam Patel, who switched from embroidery to the diamond business 18 months ago, says, “The government wants to earn from our business for free. But if my business fails, who is responsible? Everyone thinks we are diamond traders, so we are rich, but this is a myth.”
And yet, Sureshbhai and Ghanshyam insist they will continue to vote for the BJP. Explaining his support for the ruling party, Ghanshyam says, “Here, 80 per cent of people have never been to school. They may feel harassed but the Patidars will vote for BJP.”
All of them agree on one issue: they support the Patidar quota agitation but Hardik Patel’s influence has waned because “the men around him are not so good”.
Outside the diamond market, Babubhai Hirani, who moved from Bhavnagar to become a diamond broker, says he is now jobless because of the “mandi (slump)”. “I support Hardik and the quota agitation, and I will vote for the Congress. At least, it can become a strong opposition, if not form the government,” he says.
However, BJP MLA Ajay Choksi from Surat north is convinced all the 12 seats will go to the BJP. “The combination of voters is such that one has to do some management,” he says, referring to caste equations.
The BJP’s candidate is former corporator Kantibhai Balar, a Patidar from Saurashtra and brother-in-law of Dharmanand Diamonds owner Lalji Patel, who bought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monogrammed suit at an auction for Rs 4.3 crore in 2015. Inside Balar’s election office, Choksi, who claims to be an “original Surati”, says, “Except in Varachha, nobody knows Hardik.”
The Congress candidate from Surat north is Dinesh Kachhadiya, 47, a municipal corporator who rode the anti-BJP wave fuelled by PAAS in the Surat municipal elections of 2015. For the Assembly elections, he is largely dependent on the door-to-door campaign of PAAS. “The anger (against the BJP) is still there,” he says.
Giving a break-up of his vote-base, Kachhadiya, a Patidar from Amreli, says, “Of the 1.54 lakh voters in Surat north, nearly 45,500 are Patels from Saurashtra, Mehsana, central Gujarat and Surat. I am confident that the Patidars will go with the Congress. The party won 23 seats in the municipal elections because of the Patidar vote.”
Back in Varachha Road, BJP MLA and candidate Kanani says, “I agree that back then there was anger and aggression against the BJP and in that anger they voted for the Congress. But today my work will show and they will vote for us.” Kanani, incidentally, had supported Hardik Patel at the peak of the Patidar agitation.